Keck Foundation Grant Expands Opportunities for Students, Faculty
Date published: July 19, 2018
The University of Dallas has received a $300,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to purchase a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which will support teaching and
research for both faculty and students at the nanoscale (10-9 m) level.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Ellen Steinmiller, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology Deanna Soper, Ph.D., and Professor of Physics Sally Hicks, Ph.D., have mapped out specific plans for the use of the SEM in their research and
teaching. They expect the installation of the SEM to enhance currently offered courses
such as an interdisciplinary laboratory course, to create new courses such as a materials
science course, and to augment research projects in UD’s science departments.
The need for the SEM first became apparent in 2015 in the midst of a one-credit laboratory
course (Integrated Science Lab: The Color Blue) investigating the structures responsible
for the shades of blue found in nature for which no known pigments exist. This course
was designed by biology, chemistry and physics faculty in order to teach students
the value of investigating scientific questions in a cross-disciplinary way.
At the time, students were not able to make measurements at the nanoscale level —
the dimension necessary for studying the structures leading to the beautiful blues
seen, for example, in morpho butterfly wings. With this new SEM, in future incarnations
of this course, they will be able to do so. Other courses and laboratories — both
existing and new — will also utilize the SEM.
As Steinmiller explained, she is a materials chemist and studies the architecture
of materials synthesized in the lab. Her research focuses on analyzing how form and
function are inextricably linked and depend on one another. An SEM is essential because
she can see the shapes of the metal oxides investigated in her lab.
Meanwhile, Soper studies very small organisms such as insects, snails, and plankton.
She studies the male genitalia of insects and snails because this trait is important
for males to be successful in mating, which is evolutionarily important. As she explained, the SEM is needed for the detailed images necessary for quantifying
structural changes, and such images are not consistently achievable with a regular
light microscope. In her marine biology class, she plans to have students investigate
plankton because, as in studying insects and snails, light microscopy is insufficient
to examine structural details of the organisms.
In the analysis of everything from chromosomes to gunshot residue, the SEM will help
to develop students as scientists.
“We’re always training the next generation of scientists,” explained Soper and Steinmiller,
neither of whom had the opportunity to work with an SEM until graduate school. “Whether
they’re going into graduate school, medical school or industry — they’ll be leaps
and bounds ahead of others by having already had experience with an SEM.”
The SEM will enhance the student experience in UD’s labs and research. It has the
potential to attract new faculty because the SEM will open new avenues for research
“The opportunities for the future are quite exciting, as the SEM makes the possibility
of bringing a condensed matter or optical physicist to the department much more likely,”
Similarly, prospective students may be intrigued by the possibility of learning high-level
microscopy skills at the undergraduate level. The SEM is expected to be delivered
and installed during the fall and will be available for regular student use in the
spring 2019 semester.
Discover more about studying biology, chemistry or physics at UD.